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Southern India

A 15-Day Tour

Nov. 5, 2019  PACKING FOR INDIA. Today was devoted to packing for our 15-day tour to southern India. Upon checking the weather in some of the cities that we will be visiting. The temperatures ranged from 82º to 92º. Consequently, I packed mostly shorts and short-sleeve shirts. I also packed exceptionally light as an experiment on this trip. India will be a guided tour with pre-arranged transportation and accommodations, so packing wasn’t all that critical. Our upcoming 6-week trip to Thailand, however, will be self-guided, and packing super-light for that trip will be far more significant, making this experiment valuable. Both India and Thailand will be hot so that I will be taking the same clothes. Thanks to Wanda and Diane, respectively, our reserved Airbnbs and transportation prep in Thailand will be similar. It is our on-the-ground activities once we arrive at each section of Thailand that is a bit of a wild-card. The bottom line is we just can’t be lugging around heavy luggage while traveling Thailand.We leave the house at 3 am, so we all went to bed early. I couldn’t sleep and gave up around 11 am.


Nov. 6, 2019  FLIGHT TO INDIA. The alarm got us up and going at 2 am. Bruce, my nephew and designated airport driver came by at 2:45 am to take us to the train station in Augsburg by 3:30 am.

Trains don't dilly-dally around in Europe. When the train arrived at 4:07, it gave us 30 seconds to hop on. This train was the ICE express (Inter City Express) train to the Frankfurt airport. It took 3 hours to travel the 400 kilometers (250 miles) to Frankfurt. There were some stretches where we hit 140 mph. Heinrich said the new tracks will be rated for 280 mph, and France already has trains running at 300 mph. Total cost for the 15-day tour to Southern India was $1,149.00USD and included trains, planes, buses, hotels and two meals per day.

We arrived at Frankfurt airport around 7 am. We checked in at the Etihad Airline Desk. Etihad is the airline of the United Arab Emirates. We each checked a bag, and we got our paper tickets. Wanda and I don't get pre-check privileges in Germany as we do in the US with our Global Entry card; therefore, we suffered through the long security check line. We boarded the Etihad 787 Dreamliner at 9:55 am.

The first 5-hour leg of the flight ended in Abu Dhabi with a two-hour layover before boarding the next flight. Every layover minute was needed even though we were on a through-flight, and according to the airport instructions we read on board the plane, we were to bypass customs and go straight to the boarding gate for our next flight.

We did avoid customs but about 2000 passengers were herded like cattle through security again. Usually, once through security at the start of a trip, you're in the system until you exit through customs. This new bottleneck seemed endless. I was beginning to worry about making our connection and for a good reason as the plane half boarded when we finally arrived at the gate.

After watching countless commercials about the spectacle that is Abu Dhabi on CNN, the Abu Dhabi airport was more "backward" than I expected. We deplaned on the tarmac about 10 miles from the terminal. Then bused to the security area for what I considered was the most poorly run and unnecessary security check imaginable. Finally, we were transported to another gate, seemingly 10 miles, to our connecting flight.

The second 3-hour leg of the trip landed at Bangalore, India, at 3:20 am. Even at that hour, customs was chaotic. There were 4 or 5 different areas with hefty lines and no directions as to which was the proper waiting line for us. At the last second, we figured out we needed to fill out another form. Wanda successfully found some blank forms for us to fill in just before being called to the customs counter. There were questions about where we will be staying. We are on a tour, so we aren't exactly staying at any one place. After some consternation over that, we were stamped and allowed in the country.

The rest went smoothly. All of our bags showed up. We easily found the tour guide. At 6 am, with about 35 tired tourists gathered from several flights, the bus was loaded and the tour started. What!?!? No hotel to wash up? No make-up sleep? No bathroom break? Nope. Time was awaistin' - the journey begins.

 
 
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Nov. 7, 2019  Mysore, India.

The drive from Bangalore to Mysore was a sharp slap of reality square in the face. It was a 3-hour drive through an endless tour of poverty, crumbling infrastructure, trash, and people-people-people. Unlike the brand spanking new Mercedes tour buses in Mexico, our bus was a more vintage variety; however, it was probably the plushest vehicle on the road. The tour guide, a friendly local gentleman, addressed the tour using a Public Address system with way too much bass, in German with a heavy Indian accent. Later, we found out he also speaks English with a heavy Indian accent. I liked the guy right off.

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Halfway to Mysore, the bus stopped for a much welcomed potty break at a restaurant squeezed between a zillion other half-built and crumbling buildings. Needless-to-say, the bathroom experience was third-world. I freaked over the squat porcelain hole in the floor.

Once the shock wore off, I started to notice specific things. Bright colors were everywhere. Every truck was a rainbow of colors and design. Women were dressed in beautiful long and colorful sarees.

Motorized Tuk-Tuks were everywhere. These tuk-tuks were manufactured, mostly by Piaggo, and not the homemade jury-rigged versions we have seen elsewhere. They were made with a bench seat for two, maybe three in the back. Many were jammed with as many as 6 or 7 people barely hanging on. Motorbikes were everywhere. Helmets were an option, but in this insane traffic, even I would wear one. We saw a few young women dressed in their long colorful saree riding side-saddle on the backs of motorcycles. Wanda caught a picture of four people riding on one motorbike. Something intriguing was starting to formulate in my head about India.

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We stopped at a sugar candy factory. Well, factory is not quite the right word. The building was the remnants of a crumbling storage building heaped with mounds of sugar cane, fresh from the fields hauled in by horse carts, and the leftover chaff after the sugarcane was squeezed dry. The machine that extracted the liquid from the cane was a small antique mechanism that reminded me of the tree branch shredders back home. Cane is fed into a chute where it is squeezed. The juice runs down a stone trough and empties in a large boiling cauldron. The thick orange liquid is then placed on a wide wood plank to dry. Ants and flies seemed to help in this process, as they crawled around the drying goo. We got a sample, and it sure was sweet. India doesn't appear to have strict food purity laws.

Around 10 am, we pulled into the Hotel Quorum in Mysore for breakfast. It turned out that we were going to stay at the hotel for the night. Our bags were unloaded and the tour guide set up rooms for everyone while we ate.

Breakfast was a giant buffet of strange foods. I dished up spoonfuls of different curried dishes and rice dishes mixed them and put them in a rolled-up flatbread, tortilla-style. It was spectacular, with just the right amount of spicey heat. I love curried dishes. I have to figure out some recipes for when we return home.

The group had a chance to get settled into the hotel rooms and take a short nap before boarding the bus to visit Mysore, India. I napped for a full hour and awoke groggy and disoriented - where the heck was I? Oh yeah, India.

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The giant Palace was on the scale of the Alhambra in Spain and the Palace of Versailles in France. Well, nothing is on the scale of the Palace of Versailles, but the Mysore Temple was rambling, grand, and audacious. Room after room, hall after hall, was decorated in Hindu curly-cues and figurines. The patterned marble floors were reasonably clean and felt cool on our bare feet. There were several busloads of school kids in uniforms on field trips also touring the palace grounds. We were the only western (white) tourists and we stood out.

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The bus had to crawl up a narrow switchback road to reach the next stop. High up on the Chamundi Hills overlooking the city of Mysore, was the Shri Chamundeswari Temple. An entire village was built around the shrine. The Temple was a tall pyramid-shaped structure, called a gopuram, with thousands of carved Hindu figures going up the sides.

There was a small neighborhood just on the outskirts, made up of corrugated metal one-room shacks. There was one more residential area with cement multi-room houses. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of litter in that neighborhood. A community clean up would make a nice civic project and, I think, would please Sri Chamundeswari to no end. The rest of the village was made up of shops and makeshift booths selling colorful wares and street food. Again, there were tons of tour buses that brought hundreds of uniformed school kids. The kids shopped and shopped. I had wondered who bought all those plastic toys, trinkets, and stuffed animals that we saw being vended by all the vendors. Kids were at every vendor perusing the toys and cheap souvenirs. Many girls had backpacks with four and five dangling stuffed animals hanging behind them while consuming cotton candy and a multitude of local junk snacks.

There were a handful of shops selling religious souvenirs and aromatic incense that the older folks were burning while be-smudging themselves with the smoke like Native Americans do with sage grass. The kids didn't appear to share the same kinds of devotion as the elders. Maybe they were just too hyper and full of youth.
 

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Our final stop was totally insane. It was the "market". We love markets and we have experienced a lot of them from Spain to Mexico. European markets are artful, civilized affairs. Goods are presented in the most meticulous manner. Mexico is more on the chaotic end of the spectrum. This Indian market was pure anarchy. Products were strewn everywhere. The canopy, a collection of torn tarp remnants, hung haphazardly above us. Had it rained, it would not have offered much protection. The products for sale were kept just above the trash and refuse so they didn't, theoretically, mingle.

We bought some mini-bananas from a dealer that sold nothing but mini-bananas. We picked out the most yellow, least bruised specimens, but they still looked beat up. Inside the peel, however, were the most delicious, perfectly textured bananas I have ever had. Was that a metaphor for India - the outside doesn't tell the story of the inside? Deep stuff, eh?

What to do with the peels? We hung on to the peels for ten minutes looking for a trash can while we walked block after block through litter. Yes, I understood the irony of that, but I just couldn't bring myself to throw them on the ground. We finally found an intact bag of trash sitting on the sidewalk and put them in there. The bag may never reach a land fill but, hey, we did the best we could.

A supper buffet was waiting for us when we returned to the hotel at 7:30. Again, the meal was a lot of strange Indian dishes, most with plenty of "heat" and names that I will never remember. I was in heaven with all the new flavors to try.

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On our way to our final stop, we squeezed in a stop at a couple of stores selling silk, plus some amazing carvings and furniture made with intricate inlaid woodworking. All were top-notch high-end stuff. So far, I couldn't figure out who in India could afford any of these things. Maybe that's why it was part of the scheduled bus stop.

 

A supper buffet was waiting for us when we returned to the hotel at 7:30. Again, the meal was a lot of strange Indian dishes, most with plenty of "heat" and names that I will never remember. I was in heaven with all the new flavors to try.

 

November 8, 2019. Ooty, India.

As instructed, our bags were in the lobby by 7:30 am and loaded while we had breakfast. So, it was up at 6:30 to shower, recollect and repack everything, and experience another odd but delicious breakfast.

Heinrich reported he stepped on a big hairy-legged spider in the middle of the night the size of his hand on the way to the bathroom. He took a nearby plastic bucket and slapped it over the spider, trapping it inside. When the spider crawled to the "ceiling" of the upside-down bucket, he quickly whipped it into the toilet and flushed it down. You can hold these toilet flushers down to continue flushing. He kept the hammer down for some time.

After that rousing story, breakfast was a bit mundane but still terrific. Curried breakfast is not for the faint of heart. I overheard several in our group asking the waiters if a dish was sharp or spicy or hot. The answer was always "medium." I am fond of sharp, so I am in my element.

Once on the bus, we were pretty captive. The bus trip to Ooty was only 140 kilometers, but it took 7 hours driving up a steep mountain road. We made some stops along the way, but it was the highway that really slowed us down with either speed bumps every 10 feet or switchbacking our way up the mountain.

Our first potty break stopped at an Indian coffee house. Wanda got a coffee latte. It was expensive for India, but it was good. With the few and far in between pee breaks, I decided to hold my liquid intake to a minimum.

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Our next stop was at Karnataka Elementary School. It seems someone in the group had asked about the educational system in India. The tour guide decided to show us first hand. This stop, as far as I could ascertain, was a spur of the moment decision.

The school was pure depression-era 1930s. The kids were adorable, the teachers were proud to show off their classrooms, and everyone welcomed our disruption. Some classes had desks, but many did not, leaving the students to sit on the floor. The lighting was poor, and the classrooms were dark, but the walls were covered with delightful artwork and colorful teaching aids. I didn't see any computers or iPads. I didn't know how to feel when we left. The facility was primitive, but the kids and teachers seemed so happy and proud.

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When we crossed a state border, the bus had to stop and pay a tax. I thought that was interesting — time enough for another toilet break.

Our route took us through the Mudumalai National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. The park was a substantial pristine area of foothills, thick forest, fast-running rivers, and lots of free-roaming animals. It was also a plastic-free zone and apparently was strictly enforced. There was no litter anywhere - not even a blade of grass out of place. Furthermore, there is a strict 30 kilometer per hour speed limit (19 mph) with huge speed bumps, literally every 200 feet. The poor driver had to slow to a crawl for each one.

We saw many free-ranging animals that looked like animals I have seen in African documentaries. There were several deer-like animals with very odd antlers, including the ones with two long narrow slightly-curved horns. We saw what the guide called bison, but they didn't look at all like American bison. They were big, though. The highlight was the elephant. I had seen elephants at circuses as a kid, but they are just so much more majestic in the wild.

It took at least an hour and a half to crawl through the large park at 30 kph. I loved every inch. The pristine nature of the place made me smile the whole time. We have come across a few communities that were fighting plastic. One plastic-free community we drove through was about 90% less littered. Although it was still a poor community, it was more quaint and attractive. Before driving through another plastic-free community, we had to collect all the empty plastic water bottles and put them in a trash bin. Plastic bottles, even lying around the bus, were subject to fines. I applaud this trend in India, or anywhere.

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Just past the Tiger Preserve gate, we stopped for another potty break at a restaurant and store. We encountered more of the ceramic toilet holes in the floor. Cheez, they look intimidating. Wanda got a Masala tea and a cookie. Making a Masala tea was an elaborate affair. India, being a former British colony, uses milk in their tea. The young coffee barrister worked his Bunsen burner tea machine. OK, the machine is the wrong word. Do not get this confused with the fancy espresso machines at Starbucks. Still, after 10 minutes of mixing, straining, heating, and squeezing, he handed Wanda a tiny cup of muddy Masala tea and acookie for 30 rupees (40 cents). It was worth the wait. The tea was hot and spicey. We tried our best to figure out the blend of flavors but couldn't. Wanda bought a bag of the pre-ground raw tea. There was ginger, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, anise seeds, etc. I'm not sure how you turn this bag of sticks and twigs into tea, but it will be fun trying.

The ride up the mountain was the best part of the trip. Each mile as the crow flies is 20 road-miles of tight switchbacks. Highway 67, is barely one lane wide with scenic steep drops inches from the edge. The traffic was moderately heavy with oncoming buses and trucks. How they managed to get by without scraping was a testimony to the skill of these drivers. The trick to not crashing head-on as you approach the blind switchback curves is to beep-the-hell-out-of-your-horn, hoping any potential oncoming vehicle stops and waits for you to come into view around the turn. Our bus had a melodic horn, and the driver had several percussive beats that he used: beep; beep-bitty-beep-beep; bitty-bitty-beep-beep; etc. The scariest part was when there was road construction while the narrow road got narrower. There were washout areas that were getting shored up, a couple of new bridges were sort of getting built, and some retaining walls were sort of going up. I say sort of because it looks like these areas have been under construction for decades.

We ended up in Ooty at 4 pm. Our first site to visit in Ooty was the Botanical Gardens. The bus parking lot was filled with tour buses loaded with kids, most in school uniforms. These tour buses were all tricked out. I was beginning to wonder if these were school field trips. It was already late in the afternoon. When does school let out? And the buses weren't typical school buses. They had strobe lights and subwoofers booming out their incessant beat. These kid-tours were everywhere we went. I will have to investigate further.

As soon as we arrived at the Botanical Gardens, it started to rain rather hard. Wisely, I brought my umbrella. At the gate, while all four of us were huddled under my umbrella, we spied a wily street vendor selling umbrellas for 300 rupees, well worth the price.

The gardens were very nice for being in November. Some flowers were a bit past their prime, but the hedges and landscaping were pleasantly laid out. The kids were a hoot to watch, taking selfies of each other, laughing, and speed talking with their youthful enthusiasm for life. Lots of them said "hi" to us and were curious enough to ask us, in their thick broken British English, where we were from.

It was still raining and turning dark as we returned to the bus. The kids' tour buses were coming to life with their flashing lights. Instead of getting back on the bus as I thought, we went to the Tea Factory in the back of the parking lot.

The Tea Factory was an actual factory with 1940s technology. Tea leaves were fed into a large baking drum called a fermenter. Then they were ground up and sifted, shook, sifted some more, and shook some more before being dumped into large sacks. Next was the tea sampling. Again, the tea we sampled had sweet condensed milk in it. It was cardamon tea - terrific and sweet. The tour ended up in the gift shop - no surprise there. This time, Wanda bought a box of pre-ground masala tea. The Tea Factory was also a chocolate factory. Although too late to go through the factory, we were led to the chocolate gift shop only to find out that their system automatically shuts down at 7 pm and they couldn't make a sale even if they wanted to. Don't let the word system throw you. I watched the lady accountant writing out an elaborate spreadsheet on a giant sheet of wrapping paper.

The hotel was interesting. It hung off the side of a mountain with great views of the valley below. Instead of going up to the rooms, we went downhill to the rooms. Top-notch Indian hotels look beautiful on the surface, and they are compared to the hotels we drove by, but..... maintenance is the biggest bugaboo. To get to our room, we had to walk down an outdoor stairway. Halfway down, the lights were not working. Wanda's phone flashlight was needed to get the key in the lock.

Once inside, the lights didn't turn on. We figured out this problem from the last hotel. In that hotel, we had to insert our door keycard in a particular slot before the lights would work. This hotel, however, gave us a key. Ah, but the keychain had a hunk of plastic hanging on it. I found a slot to put the plastic in and VOILA - still no lights. After some investigation, we discovered that the plastic doo-hickie was broke and not making contact. A cute young kid came down and poked around in the slot until the lights turned on. A new key would be delivered later.

The bath-shower room looked impressive at first glance, but nothing worked quite as expected. First, it was a wet bath meaning the shower was not separate from the toilet area and sprayed the entire room, then the drain wasn't functioning, then it took 24 hours for the hot water to reach the faucets. But I am nit-picking. The food has been good, the beds are big and comfortable, and I am sleeping well.

 

November 9, 2019. Coonoor, India.

THE CRUSH OF HUMANITY! Where to begin. First of all, I wouldn't have missed this trip for anything. No documentary I have seen could have prepared me for this experience. This trip to India is not a pleasure trip. This trip to India is not a sit-back-and-relax-trip. This trip to India is not a trip looking for aesthetic beauty.

So, what is it? Witnessing India is a realistic sampling of how nearly one-third of the world's humanity survives - barely. It is crowded, loud, chaotic, crazy, dirty, polluted, and beyond poor. Yet, they make it work. That is the magic of Incredible India. They are dealt a hand of all deuces, and somehow, they gut through it. And, here is the thing - I was the beneficiary of the luck of birth-lottery. The people of India are born in a horrible, dystopian mess. I was not. That is luck! However, India is also a story of triumph along with survival -  despite all odds, lack of luck, or lack of good governance. That is what makes India incredible!

We had a much needed, lazy morning. After another strangely wonderful breakfast, Wanda and I got to sneak in a nap. I think we shook the last of the jet-lag sleepies. In the daytime, we could take in the hotel view. The morning sun quickly heated the air. The village in the valley way down below shimmered with color. The weather report promised cold and rain. By mid-morning, a dark shaggy cloud crept over the mountain top and engulfed the valley. The temperature was 68º, and that was going to be the high temperature for today.

At 1 pm, we all loaded up on the Magical Mystery Bus and headed down the mountain to Coonoor. The morning traffic was heavy, and the road had not gotten any wider overnight. It was noticeably warmer down the mountain, and the rain held off.

I am starting to figure out the bus set-up. Public transportation is either bus or tuk-tuk. All coaches, whether city bus, inter-city bus, tour bus, or school bus, are all personalized with lights, streamers, dangling doo-dads everywhere inside and outside, and colorful designs painted everywhere. Some windshields had so much bright and colorful stuff attached to them that the driver was left with only a tiny circle to peer through. There are buses everywhere, going everywhere you desire. Bus driving seems to be quite the profession as each driver looks very proud. When I wanted to take a picture of a couple of buses, the drivers came out and proudly stood in front of their bus. I am not sure who owns the coaches, but I got the impression that the driver gets to do the personalization.

When we arrived in Coonoor, we were let out at a restaurant to try a local dish called Masala Dosa. The restaurant was amazingly dingy, lit only with a few tiny bare LED bulb lights. The maître'd, waiters, and cooks were all gracious and friendly. The group was led up a narrow dark stairway to the banquet room. Again, don't take the word "banquet" literally. There were a couple of Indian customers eating rice and curry dishes. They weren't using utensils, as is the custom.

We were allowed into the kitchen to watch the cooks make the large paper-thin crepes that we were here to sample. It was quite an operation. The restaurant cooking gear was something NOT to see. Anyway, we had a Masala Dosa crepe served on a banana leaf, with two sauces on the side, and a tiny donut. The donut was filled with some hot pepper that resembled sliced jalapeños. The method was, tear off a piece of the crepe, dip it into a coconut sauce, and then into a hot samba sauce. It was delicious.

The bathroom experience was typical Indian. The restaurant didn't have a toilet, so we were sent a half block down to another restaurant. This establishment had two unisex stalls with the porcelain floor holes. My stall didn't have a door catch. A girl swung open the door while I was peeing (standing up, of course). When I turned around, three young girls about 15 were giggling up a storm. Flushed red, I quickly exited.

 

Next on tour group itinerary was a train ride on the Heritage Train up the mountain to Ooty. But we had an hour to kill before we were to meet at the train station. Most of the group chose to walk through the downtown market. Wow, this was where you could feel the crush of humanity. People and free-ranging animals were everywhere. The shops and houses were crumbling and derelict. One wondered what was keeping them upright. Hotels could only be rated negative infinite stars. Corrugated metal, pieces of tarp, and rocks were the go-to materials used for repairs. In the middle of this chaotic mess was a beautiful and well taken care of, Hindu shrine. The river that flowed through the city was nothing more than a litter-strewn sewer. Yet, people are living in shacks, bathing, and washing clothes in the same river. With mouths wide open, we walked through the downtown market until it was time to return to the train station. India needs a million Mother Theresas.

Boarding the steam-powered antique Heritage Train, a working 1930s style train, was nuts. There was only one car with individual compartments for 1st class and one car for 2nd class tickets. The rest of the cars were economy class with bench seats. What is the difference between luxury compartments and economy cars? The seats for 1st and 2nd class have padding while the economy car seats do not.

Each seat had a number, and passengers were assigned a specific seat number. Our tour guide showed us a piece of paper with our seat assignments, but somehow, through his broken German and the complicated numbering system, we didn't quite get how that system worked. Our perplexed tour group proceeded to take their desired seats. This confusion resulted in endless consternation when the actual seat holder showed up. The tour guide and the train conductor huddled for 15 minutes of heated discussion, resulting in a reshuffling of seats until all passengers were seated correctly. Whew!

Boarding the steam-powered antique Heritage Train, a working 1930s style train, was nuts. There was only one car with individual compartments for 1st class and one car for 2nd class tickets. The rest of the cars were economy class with bench seats. What is the difference between luxury compartments and economy cars? The seats for 1st and 2nd class have padding while the economy car seats do not.

Each seat had a number, and passengers were assigned a specific seat number. Our tour guide showed us a piece of paper with our seat assignments, but somehow, through his broken German and the complicated numbering system, we didn't quite get how that system worked. Our perplexed tour group proceeded to take their desired seats. This confusion resulted in endless consternation when the actual seat holder showed up. The tour guide and the train conductor huddled for 15 minutes of heated discussion, resulting in a reshuffling of seats until all passengers were seated correctly. Whew!

The train climbed up the mountains back to Ooty. We went through tunnels, deep rock cuts, over ravines and bridges, passed by cascading rivers, and rumbled through forests and villages. I love train rides, and this one was awesome. The entire trip took 1 1/2 hours.  We later learned that this train ride is on many Indians must-do list scheduling reservations two or more months in advance.

This drive was absolutely entertaining. There was heavy two-way traffic with many buses trying to share a goat-path of a road. The best part was the dance that two on-coming coaches made. First, the face-off. Who was going to back up first? The loser of the face-off backed up just a couple of feet and then pulled the nose of the bus as far off the road as possible, only to provide an inch or two more. The winner crept forward just past the nose of the opposing coach and stopped. Then, both buses had to inch forward, stop, and re-assess; inch forward, stop, re-assess. It was a trusting and intimate dance between the two drivers. I was very proud of our driver. He made a most excellent bus-dance partner.

Back at the hotel, we had supper. Twice now, we had Indian ice cream for dessert - it is wonderful, light, and creamy. Yesterday was chocolate, and today was vanilla. All of us discovered that the vanilla ice cream made a spectacular creamer for the strong black after-dinner coffee. We retired early. Tomorrow starts at 5:30 am.

 

November 10, 2019. Kochi, India.

Our wake up call came at 5:30 am, luggage was ready to be loaded at 6:30 am and breakfast ends at 7:30 am for departure. This early morning routine went like clockwork. I noticed that more and more of the group were picking western breakfast foods like toast, cereal, omelet, and fruit. I discovered these fluffy white dumplings, called Idly, that are great dipped in curry sauces. Breakfast isn’t just for Corn Flakes anymore.
 

The drive down the mountain was harrowing, dangerous, scary, and wonderfully terrifying. The road mirrored the previous mountain road,  but this time the driver had to lay on the brakes. Bus and truck traffic was relatively heavy. Meeting traffic on the blind hairpin turns still required the same kind of bus-dancing that we enjoyed watching the night before.Steep impressive mountain scenery, some free-ranging cows, and a ton of monkeys running around added to the drive. I sat upfront for a while to enhance the carnival-ride effect.It was hot once we finally reached the valley down below. My weather app predicted 88º in Kochi.
 

At 1 pm, most of us chose to transfer to a train at Coimbatore for the remainder of the trip to Kochi. Wanda and Diane choose to remain on the bus. We were to all meet in Kochi. The train station at Coimbatore was another blast-from-the-past around the 30s or 40s. It was a large station with many tracks. The first thing we noticed was the condition of the trains. We have become accustomed to modern European trains. These trains were not modern European trains. They were, maybe, one step up from the antique Heritage Train that we rode yesterday. Besides being totally beat up, the engines and cars were ancient. There were two kinds of passenger cars: 1) The prison-cars with thick ugly bars over open windows or 2) The more modern cars with chain link fencing over the windows.

 

While waiting for our train, we got to walk around the station. There was a display of the brand new bio-toilets recently installed on the trains. Gone are those toilet holes direct to the ground. Indian Railways proudly proclaimed that after extensive research, they developed the world’s leading toilet for passengers on trains. The advantages are that there are fewer flies near the tracks, especially in the train depots. I kid you not - this is what they were advertising. There was even a video showing what not to put in the bio-toilet - no bottles, trash, or sanitary napkins. Naturally, being India, this new-fangled toilet was the squat floor-hole variety, what they called, “Indian-Style.” This time it was aluminum instead of porcelain.

Flat-screen TVs were every 50 feet advertising beautiful soft eastern pop music and gorgeous women in colorful flowing dress-wraps and modern, clean western-style buildings, stores, and homes - the fantasy.

The trains were exceedingly long with a zillion cars all jam-packed. Where are all these people going? When the trains stopped at the station, crowds in the thousands get off and get on. Thank goodness for the trains. The roads would be even more clogged if all these people rode buses or drove cars. I have to amend my previous statement - public transportation is bus, tuk-tuk, and train.

I already saw it, but it just didn’t register until I stood on the train platform - there were no other people except Indians. There were no other caucasian people, Asian people, or African people - no foreigners, no tourists. We were it, the only foreign visitors. I also noted that I had not seen any woman wearing modern western-style clothes, not even young girls. Basically, there were three sets of female dress: Colorful Hindu dress-wraps, called a sari; loose pajama pants plus a long loose dress or extra long loose shirt; and plain Islamic wrap with head scarfs. Some Islamic women were totally covered except for eye slits. There are Christians in India. I saw some school buses with “St. Something or Other” printed on them driving around with uniformed school kids in them. I also saw some references to Jesus. But Hindu is by far the most prevalent religion here.

Our train showed up 20 minutes late - early by Amtrak’s standards. It was the same well-worn train as the rest, but with one exception, the windows wouldn’t open, so there wasn’t a need for bars or fencing. This time we quickly found our seats. My seat was a window seat. Well, window wasn’t quite right. The glass was a foggy distorted yellow-tinged portal.

This train was listed as one of the few “Superfast” trains. I was interested to see what that meant. My guess is that it might have reached 80 mph in places. It made a ton of racket as it screeched around turns, and each drumbeat of the clickity-clacks was loud, but it was faster than the bus in getting to Kochi. The bus took 5 1/2 hours, and we took 4 hours to make the trek. Superfast? You betcha!

The seats were worn. Consequently, they hurt. After an hour and a half, I had to get up and walk around. I noticed that the exit doors at each end of the cars were left open, and passengers were hanging out, enjoying the breeze. As soon as a doorway was abandoned, I stepped in and took over. The breeze was glorious, and the full view was far better than the small smudged, hazy windows by my seat. I couldn’t imagine doing that in the US. As much as I love trains, I am not sure I would do another Indian Railway train ride. I heard that India has the largest network of trains in the world. Unfortunately, they also have the most obsolete train network in the world. That, in itself, would usually be an enduring trait for me, but these trains were way too packed and claustrophobic for a multi-hour ride. Still, I loved the experience, and I am glad I did it.

It was raining by the time we were picked up at the train station. We went straight to the Ibis Hotel. Ibis is one of the semi-exclusive hotel chains in Asia. This Ibis was pretty nice, except the rooms were very musty. At least the shower spray stayed in the shower stall. That was a first for us.

Supper was spectacular — more curried dishes. I will try to figure out what they are in the future. I always end up mixing them together so it probably doesn’t matter what each dish is.

We retired to our rooms around 8 pm so I could catch up on some travel journaling. Don’t get me wrong with my nitpicking. These are descriptions, not complaints. I am thoroughly enjoying myself.